Long, excitable queues form every day outside Ahmet Cicek’s restaurant in Besiktas, one of Istanbul’s busiest neighbourhoods, with locals and tourists alike flocking to try his speciality dish of mussels stuffed with lemon-spiked rice.
Outside, the burly Cicek is a familiar figure, posing proudly for photos with customers and passers-by; as many as 400 a day, he says, even more on weekends.
Mussels are a very popular Istanbul street food and there are many shops like Cicek’s throughout the city. What marks him out is the highly successful canny social media campaign that has given him his nickname – “Lord of the Mussels”.
Instagram and YouTube are full of videos of him calmly grilling giant kokoretsi, a traditional stuffed intestine dish, or ploughing through piles of mussels in takeaway buckets emblazoned with his grinning face. One vast forearm is even tattooed with the name of his restaurant Midyeci Ahmet – which means Ahmet the mussels-seller.
“I started with posting photos of mussels and grilled intestines, but then I began creating and posting videos as well, featuring myself eating the food that I prepared, which became very popular,” Cicek said, explaining that he was inspired by the stratospheric rise of Nusret Gokce, better known by his nickname Salt Bae.
The 36-year-old chef became a global social media sensation after posting on January 7, 2017 a video of himself carving a steak on Instagram. Overnight, his elaborate and very sensual technique for preparing and seasoning meat became an internet star.
From humble origins as a 13-year-old butcher’s apprentice working 13-hour days before opening his first restaurant in Istanbul in 2010, Gokce was propelled to fame and a steak house empire valued at 1.5 billion US dollars. He now has 21.5 million Instagram followers (https://www.instagram.com/nusr_et/?hl=en) and owns Nusr-Et, a restaurant chain with branches in Istanbul, Abu Dabi, Dubai, New York, Miami and Doha.
“I realized that Nusret Gokce was making a lot of money by preforming for the audience as he was cooking meat, so I thought that I should try something similar myself,” Cicek said.
Other Turkish restaurateurs have been similarly inspired by Gokce, like Nedim Sahin, known as the Pilaf Cook of Baruthane, whose business only began to thrive after he started using social media.
Pilaf, or cooked rice, is a very popular classic Turkish dish usually served with chicken, beef stew or vegetables.
But, like the Lord of the Mussels or Salt Bae, the Pilaf Cook of Baruthane owes his growing popularity to the theatrical ways in which he serves his customers.
With his trademark giant moustache, he is often to be found at his restaurant in Baruthane, putting on a show as he piles up layer upon layer of various dishes on top of a pilaf base.
“I’ve seen that successful chefs were those who had followers on social media, so I decided to do the same. Only then did I start earning money,” said Sahin, who is poised to open another restaurant in Besiktas. “However, if you don’t know how to prepare food well, and if you don’t put up a show while you are presenting it, then you will have no followers on social media, nor customers.”
Some customers complain that the combinations he uses are weird and not particularly tasty, but Sahin is not bothered by such criticisms. Since he uses social media to attract his clientele, visual effects are more important.
“People come to my restaurant for the show, and that’s what we give them. We put moustaches on their faces, take photos together, and then post those photos on social media. We make people happy,” Sahin said.
But not everyone is pleased about this new generation of social-media gastronomy.
Sociologist Erhan Akarcay argues that the glamourised visual presentation of cooking and eating has actually served to cheapen Turkey’s historic food culture.
“Serving food becomes a spectacle, something that we define as ‘food porn,’” he said. “Nusret Gokce’s posts, his presentation of meat and his body language have some gastro-pornographic features. Many photos, short videos, tags, and hashtags related to food on social media include pornographic connotations.”
These ostentatious displays went against Turkey’s very real tradition of hospitality, Akarcay continued.
“Before social media existed, one of the key traditions in the Turkish society was… offering and sharing food with others,” he explained. “Nowadays, this ‘sharing’ of food is limited only to the cyber world, but that doesn’t seem to concern anyone in our society. The food itself – mainly its taste and quality – becomes secondary to its presentation on social media.”
Muge Akgun, a food culture columnist for the Turkish daily Hurriyet, agreed that the omnipresence of food-related spectacle in social media undermined “Turkey’s rich gastronomic culture”.
“It seems that these days many people don’t choose the restaurants in which the best food is served, but the restaurants that are most popular on social media. It is all about fame and sending a message to other people saying ‘I was there,’” she said.
However, Akgun hopes that this trend will be short-lived.
“As the culture of eating out becomes stronger in Turkey, and people start putting emphasis on the taste of food rather than a hype created on social media, the quality of food in restaurants will become more important than their popularity on Instagram,” she said. “In time, the porn food culture will be replaced by proper eating out again.”